In March 2000, the heads of state of the European Union (EU) nations set an ambitious goal for themselves: to make the EU “’the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’” by 2010. Known as the Lisbon Agenda, this program aimed to revitalize the nations of the EU that had collectively experienced economic stagnation in the years preceding the agreement. Just as President Obama has identified education in general and college graduation rates in particular (stating that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”) as a vehicle for driving economic growth, the Lisbon Agenda put emphasis on the same.
A 2006 report from the Commission of the European Communities titled “Delivering on the Modernisation Agenda for Universities: Education, Research, and Innovation,” noted that the “modernization of Europe’s universities, involving their interlinked roles of education, research and innovation” is a “core condition” for the success of the Lisbon Agenda. In that same year, the Spring European Council agreed upon the establishment of the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) which would “contribute to improving Europe’s capacity for scientific education, research and innovation, while providing an innovative model to inspire and drive change in existing universities, in particular by encouraging multi-disciplinarity and developing the strong partnerships with business that will ensure its relevance.” Additionally, the Commission called on member nations to create national systems that allowed for geographic mobility of degrees between various EU member states, greater autonomy with strengthened accountability for universities, incentives for partnerships between universities and the business community, and an increased “employability” of graduates.
To this end, EU member nations set forth their own individual agendas geared to meet the goals of the Lisbon Agenda, although few developed comprehensive national strategies in a timely manner. In 2005, for example, Ireland introduced its “National Reform Programme” which called on the government to double R&D investments, increase participation in higher education by currently underrepresented groups, and decrease the number of students who prematurely leave their educations. Spain committed significant funding to “growth and employment priorities” including building up access to higher education as a means to fulfilling the goals associated with the Lisbon Agenda. In France, the government used the Lisbon Agenda as justification for educational reforms that increased spending on science and research and development by 3 percent. After joining the EU in 2004, Slovenia attempted to catch up with its colleagues in regards to the Lisbon Agenda. By June 2005, the government of Slovenia published its “Development Strategy” which included some “interventions in the field of higher education and research.”
Today, more than 11 years since the signing of the Lisbon Agenda, it is clear that these efforts were not enough. Many heads of state of EU nations have admitted the failure of the Lisbon Agenda. In the summer of 2009, Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt wrote in an article published in the Swedish daily paper, Dagens Nyheter, that “even if progress has been made it must be said that the Lisbon Agenda, with only a year remaining before it is to be evaluated, has been a failure.” Many decry the nonbinding nature of the Lisbon Agenda as one of its greatest failures. Despite its shortcomings, many EU heads of state have called for the program to be re-launched. Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has encouraged member states to analyze and understand the failures of the Lisbon Agenda when moving forward with another ten-year program with similar goals.
Recent news stories from around EU member nations, however, leave many questioning how much attention heads of state will give to Prime Minister Zapatero’s advice. Nearly every EU nation is facing a financial crisis similar to that of the United States and like their counterparts in the US, publicly funded European universities are suffering. In Latvia, for example, significant cuts to the nation’s education budgets have left many students uncertain about their academic futures. Each of the nation’s 34 universities is facing deep budget cuts with one estimate noting a “threatened 50 percent cutback to the planned higher education budget…” Universities in Italy, Ireland, Iceland, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Serbia, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are also experiencing significant higher education budget cuts. Germany is a notable exception. Most German universities are fully state-funded and require little to no tuition for attendance and the federal government continues to make significant investments in German higher education.
While the Germans continue to make significant investments in their higher education system, other EU member states are struggling with how to actualize the recommendations of the Lisbon Agenda. As early as 2005, many were already realizing that the Lisbon Agenda was doomed. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal told a gathering in Brussels in early 2005 that “’The overall Lisbon goals were right, but the implementation was poor. The lesson from the last five years is that we must refocus this agenda to deliver results.’” Since its expiration in 2010, many have called for the revitalization of the agreement, either in its original form or in a somewhat altered form. In the face of the “Great Recession” of 2009, very few European economies were left unscathed leading many to reiterate the importance of the ideals of the Lisbon Agenda. As a result, the Europe 2020 Strategy has been put forth as the “new and improved” Lisbon Agenda. With so many heads of state acknowledging the importance of education and innovation as a driver of economic development and experiencing the failures of the Lisbon Agenda, it will be interesting to see what alterations are made to the new Europe 2020 Strategy and how that program will impact the higher education systems and ultimately the economies of the EU member states. The European higher education model is not significantly different than the U.S. higher education model. Given the significant cuts to higher education support that we’ve seen in states like California and the resulting increases in tuition costs to students, a similar outcome of limiting access to higher education is likely at a time when neither states (U.S.) nor countries (Europe) can afford to decrease the number of their college graduates.